Monday, November 24, 2014

Jumping Up and Down

Sermon for Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 23, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, VT
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Jumping up and down

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.

Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.

On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.

I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

That is Stephen Dunn’s poem “At the Smithfield Methodist Church.”
One of my very favorite poems.

It so lovingly lays out our struggle with belief.
Our wrestling match with this man named Jesus
and the Church.

Today is the “Last Sunday after Pentecost.”
That sounds rather final, doesn’t it?

Here’s the good news--
it is not our last Sunday ever--just the Last Sunday of this liturgical season.

Many, many weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost,
the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples and onto all of us.
Some refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church.
If we think back we can remember the red vestments,
the kite flying over our heads inside the Cathedral,
the party that followed.

But time passes.
Weeks go by and here we are in a time of shorter days,
greyer skies, and time to ponder.
We began to wonder.

Am I a sheep or a goat?
Do I want to follow or do I want to butt heads with the Church?
Do I want to stand up for Jesus
or do I want to run and hide,
be silent, be sullen.

What is true?
What is real?
How can we know?

We spend so much effort trying to “fix” the church--
and each other, I might add--
that sometimes we miss the point.

The Church is not a fixer upper.
The Church is a community of God’s people.
Yes, there are flaws, definite whiffs of goat-dom at times.

But God does not call us--as individuals or as communities--
to be perfect.
God calls us to be faithful.
God calls us to be kind to one another, to be compassionate, to respect each other.

The Church does not belong to us--
the Church belongs to God AND us--together.

We also need to remember that we don’t have to find God.
God will find us.
If we open our hearts--and sometimes, even when we don’t.

It helps to show up.
Of course, as your priest,
I think it helps-- a lot-- to show up in church.

To pray and to worship, to give thanks.
And even for the most skeptical of us,
there is always that off chance
that we might be transformed
in ways we did not ask or imagine.

Yes, show up at church to pray and worship and give thanks,
but show up other places too.
I think it helps to show up in a lot of places
just as Jesus showed up in a lot of places.

Show up to offer hospitality to the stranger.
We do that by hanging out in the South Porch and welcoming
those coming through our doors.
Do you realize how much courage it takes to walk in the doors of a church
when you have been away for a long time?
Imagine the amount of courage it takes to walk through the doors
if you have NEVER been to church. Ever.
This is the world we live in today.

We greet one another at the time of passing God’s peace.
We host a coffee hour.
We fix a pot of stew or bring a gallon of milk
or help serve dinner at the Salvation Army.
We wash the pots and pans.
We invite someone to come to church.

We volunteer at JUMP and provide clothing and food
and diapers and a bus pass
and other basic needs for these strangers
that God has brought to our door.

We get involved with Vermont Interfaith Action
and write position papers
to try to change a system that sometimes feels unchangeable.
We jump up and down for justice
and believe that the impossible is possible.

We make a donation to the UTO fund
simply because we are thankful.
We care about what is happening in Zimbabwe and Haiti and Kenya
and Costa Rica.
We teach Church School to the littlest ones among us
and with the bigger ones,
we talk about the psalms or healing oils
or a walk through spiritual darkness.

We visit those in prison
always remembering that there are many types of prisons.

We begin to stop believing that we are the ones in control,
that we are the rulers of the universe.

On rare occasions we get it.
We understand how little control we have.

The doctor enters the examining room and says,
“We got your tests back and the news is not good...”

The phone rings in the middle of the night
and it is the call we hoped we would never get.

We stand helpless as we watch our teenager
or our husband or our wife--or ourselves--
spiral down into the deep, dark hole of depression or addiction.
Or both.

The rains come and the waters rise
and everything we worked so hard for and thought was ours forever
is washed away.

Suddenly we are the ones who need feeding and clothing
and tender visits.

Control is such a convincing illusion.

But Jesus keeps telling us that control is not what matters.
Love matters. Compassion matters.
God’s unquenchable thirst for restoration, for resurrection
begins to get our attention.

We sometimes think it is all up to us.
That we are the ones wearing the crown.
That we are the kings and the queens of the universe.
Not true.

The little girl in Stephen Dunn’s poem
has is right.

We are not called to have all the answers.
We are called to be joyful.

We are not called to be powerful.
We are called to be thankful.

We are called to see the face of Christ
in everyone we meet.
To see the face of Christ
in every single person.

To pay attention to the God-moments,
those lightning flashes of grace
that remind us of the kingdom that is coming,
but to also remind us,
that the kingdom
is already here.


+   +   +

Stephen Dunn is one of my favorite poets. I encourage you to buy one of his books of poetry.These are just a few.

Jesus Gives a Surprise Party

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
November 2, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Jesus gives a surprise party

There is a brief article 
in the most recent edition of our local newspaper SEVEN DAYS.
It’s an article about surprise parties. 

Some of you may have had a surprise party given for you.
Maybe you really were surprised
Some of you may have experienced a planned-to-be-surprise party
but something or someone tipped you off
and you had to just pretend to be surprised.

Today in the gospel of Matthew 
we all get to go to a surprise party.
That’s right.
Jesus is giving a party.

Jesus has been traveling all over Galilee
and there have been crowds and crowds of people following him
and now he is going to try to shake the crowds
and head up a mountain
with just a few of his closest friends--
we know them as the apostles--
but its the other eight guests whom Jesus invites that are the surprise.
Some might even say shocking guests.

These surprise guests are the Beatitudes.
This list of blessed are the...
this list is known as the Beatitudes.

Beatitudes is not a word we toss around very much these days.

We can think of the word “beatitude” as meaning a “blessing”.
It’s also helpful to know that our English word “beatitude” 
comes from a Latin word
which means “happiness.”

So Jesus is essentially saying
those who mourn are blessed...
those who are poor in spirit are blessed..
those who are persecuted are blessed...

The apostles are listening and thinking, “what?!!”

Each time one of these beatitudes pops out of the cake,
it’s as if they literally shout SURPRISE!!
because what they have to say,
what Jesus has to teach,
is not the usual, not the expected, not the everyday.

So Jesus is trying to teach his disciples 
about the unexpected paths that will lead to happiness, 
the ways and behaviors that lead us to feeling blessed 
and to blessing others.

What will lead us to making life on earth as it is in heaven?
What will make us more whole as human beings?
What will bring us ultimate happiness.

The beatitudes are not a judgmental moral code.
Jesus is not saying try to be mournful,
try to get yourself persecuted...
Jesus is saying that blessing and happiness
can come from situations we could never plan or imagine.

Jesus throws this surprise party
to show his friends and followers a very different face of God.
What we hear and learn in the Beatitudes reveals 
a God who cares about the people who have the least,
the people who ARE the least in the eyes of the most.

The poor in spirit...
Those who mourn..
Those who are meek...
Those who are hungry for justice..
Those who are merciful...
Those who are pure in heart...
Those who are peacemakers...
Those who are persecuted when they try to do what is right...

The shock, the surprise, is that Jesus does not say what is expected.
He does not say
blessed are the powerful
blessed are the ones who have the answer to everything
blessed are the ones who triumph over others..

If you want help identifying the saints of God,
read the beatitudes. 
They are the description of those we know as saints.
Saints are the ones whose lives surprise.
Saints are the ones who look to God not to the world 
to receive their blessing.

Francis does not join his wealthy father in the family business.
He loves his father
but Francis finds his happiness, his blessing
in living in poverty, with the poor, as one of the poor,

Hildegard of Bingen defies the label of a “poor,weak woman”
in her 11th century world.
She goes on to become a writer, an artist, a composer, 
the founder of multiple Benedictine monasteries
and even an advisor to the Pope.

Frances Perkins ,an Episcopalian, could have just enjoyed her status
as being the first woman appointed to a cabinet position,
Secretary of Labor.
But she defied bureaucratic boundaries
and fought tirelessly for American workers.
She did not care if people liked or admired her 
but she cared about reforming labor laws so that children could go to school instead of work long hours as cheap labor,
so that the elderly would have a secure if modest income when they retired,
and more.

Blessed are the saints of God--
only they have not idea they will become a saint
when they start on their journey.

This kingdom of heaven is a different kind of party.
Jesus invites the lowly and the downtrodden,
those who don’t strive to make others lose
so that they can be lauded as the winner.
This party is about those who are kind, 
those who are merciful to others.

Jesus invites people who are at the end of their rope,
people who are broken-hearted,
people who feel they have lost everything.

Those who receive true blessing
are those who care about others and not just themselves,
those who work to resolve conflict,
to help people learn to work together instead of fight.
Those who do the right thing
even when there is so much encouragement to turn their backs
and go along with the crowds.

Okay. We get it. 
We were a bit surprised at first,
when those beatitudes were jumping out of the cake,
but it’s starting to make sense now.

Now of course we all want a blessing.
We all would like to go home with the beatitude party favor.
But we will have missed the real point of the party.
The real surprise is that 
the blessing has already been given.
To all of us.
God created each one of us to be a saint.

Indeed some read the beatitudes as warnings
on how we should behave.
And some read the beatitudes what’s going to happen at the end of time.

But I think they forgot to put on their party hats.
It’s not about deserving the blessing,
or earning the blessing.

It’s about living into the blessing.
Living in to the blessing we have already received.
It is about the grace that is already given..

The Rev. Dr. David Lose is a Lutheran pastor, a very gifted man.
He now serves as the head of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.
He tells a wonderful story about when he was in graduate school.

One of his professors consistently addressed him as “Dr. Lose.”
Eventually he felt like he had to say something and correct the professor.
He said, 
“Dr. LuRue, I haven’t earned my doctorate yet. 
I don’t think you should call me that.”

“Dr. Lose,” his professor responded, 
“ in my church tradition we are not content
to call you what your are, 
but instead 
we call you what we believe
you will be!
Our names are being called.
Right along with the other saints.

There’s a party on the mountain
and we are invited. 
We are invited to come and celebrate all that God believes we will be,
all that God believes we already are at the deepest part of our being.

Blessed are those who accept God’s invitation.


Who Brought You Out of the Land of Egypt?

Sermon for Year A, Proper 23
October 12, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt?

Some of you know
that I was at the National Storytelling Festival
in Jonesboro, Tennessee last week.

Over 12,000 people from all over the world
gathered under enormous tents to listen to stories
from early morning into the night.

One of the storytellers I heard is a man named Tom Lee.
He is from Connecticut
and has told stories in many places
including recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
when they opened a new Egyptian exhibit.

He shared a piece of information
that relates to our Old Testament reading this morning.
In the reading from Exodus
Moses has gone up on the mountain to talk to God.
And the story goes that he will soon return bringing the stone tablets
upon which the ten commandments are inscribed.
At the end of chapter 31 in Exodus,
it says,
When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai,
he gave him two tablets of the covenant,
tablets of stone,
written with the finger of God.

Now if you are like me,
and have seen the old movie with Charlton Heston playing Moses,
you have a very vivid memory
of Moses coming down off that mountain with these two huge,
no doubt heavy, stone tablets.
The weighty word of God.

But what storyteller Tom Lee shared is that those tablets
were probably only about the size of the human hand.
That was the pretty standard size for stone tablets in that era.

Tom Lee also noted that the modern day iPhone
is just about that same size.
The size of the human hand.
(Tom Lee also predicted that iPhone 6 Plus will be a bust---
because it’s too large!
It doesn’t fit neatly into your hand!)

Regardless of the size of the tablets that Moses carries off the mountain,
there is trouble by Chapter 32.

Big trouble down at the base camp.
Golden trouble.
The people  got tired of waiting for Moses to get back.
They probably were scared too.
What happened to Moses up on that mountain?
Who’s going to protect us, lead us, help us now?

Sometimes we do really silly and stupid things
when we get scared.

The people went to Moses’ older brother, Aaron,
and they said,
it is time to go to Plan B.
Moses is not coming back.
We are tired of waiting.

So Aaron gave them what they wanted.
He created a golden image,
a calf.
Here you go.
Here is the one who led you out of Egypt.
The golden calf.
Here is the one who will lead you out of the wilderness.
The golden calf.

Really, Aaron?
Was Aaron just trying to calm the people down
or had he too lost faith?

I don’t think the Hebrew people really thought the golden calf
was equal to God,
to Yahweh,
but they needed something tangible.
They needed something they could see and touch
to give them hope.

Moses had been that tangible something.
Moses had negotiated with Pharaoh.
Moses had led the Hebrew people out of Egypt,
through the Red Sea.
Moses had freed the Hebrew people from slavery.

But you see Moses had not done any of those things.
That’s the point of the story.
God had done those things.
God had worked through Moses to save the people.

But God was not visible.
Moses was visible.

And now Moses is not visible.
And the people want something they can see.
Seeing is believing.
So a calf, forged out of gold, is made visible.

God is not a happy camper.

God tells Moses you better get back down there.
Because your people seem to have a very short memory.

God is angry.

Now I don’t know about you,
but I don’t really like an angry God.
I’ll be honest.
It makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe because I know that on occasion I am not all that different
from the Hebrew people.
I too can have a very short memory
of all that God has done for me.

This story in Exodus tells us that God is about to unleash disaster,
hot wrath against those stiff-necked people,
those ungrateful people.
Now stiff-necked means stubborn, obstinate, disagreeable,
I might have been stiff-necked--a few times.
Many times.

And what God is about to do is not going to be pretty.

And what does Moses do?
Moses knows his people have acted ridiculously
but he still asks God,
“Change your mind.
Don’t do what you are angry enough to do.
Change your mind.
Do not bring disaster on my people.
Because my people are YOUR people.”

And as incompetent or ungrateful and stiff-necked
as we can be,
give us another chance.

Our memories are short, aren’t they?
How quickly we can forget all that God does for us.
How quickly we can get lost in a log-jam of complaints
and forget to count our many blessings.

God says wait.
And we say no, now.

God says trust in me
and we say I tried that once but it wasn’t for me

God says you’ve made a mess
and we say it wasn’t my fault.

When my nephew Patrick was a little boy
he loved matchbox cars.
he would run them on the floor, up the wall, across your leg.
And one weekend he and his brother were staying with my parents,
their grandparents
and they sat down for dinner
and Patrick was running his car all over the dining room table.
My mother had reached her tipping point.
Let’s just say her “hot wrath” was being aroused!

“Patrick, you need to put away your car until after dinner.”
Patrick looked at his grandmother and said,
“You’re not my boss.”
To which my mother, his very loving grandmother said,
“Oh, but I AM the boss of this table.
So put away the car.”
And Patrick paused,
looked at his grandmother and said,
“Okay...but I AM the boss of this car.”

We like to be the boss.
We like to be in control.
So did the Hebrew people.
The invisible intangible God makes us uncomfortable at times,
We like things we can see and touch and hold.

We are good at creating  golden calves.

Splenda God
Sweet and Low God
Equal God.

Oh we’ll take artificial if it is quicker and easier and oh so modern.
Even if those false gods leave a bad and bitter aftertaste,
even if they threaten to destroy our health and happiness--
our families and our peace.

God is the real sweetener.

God is the one who leads us out of Egypt.
God is the one who ferries us across the Red Seas of our lives.
God is the one who walks right beside us through every wilderness.

Change your mind,
Moses asks God.
Remember, God, we are your people.
We make a mess of things sometimes.
We forget.

Now help us remember,
you are our God
and we are your people.

+     +     +

Monday, September 22, 2014

One Nickel, Five Pennies

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things.
Those are the words we hear in the opening collect this morning.

Oh, how we do worry and fret about earthly things!

In doing a little research
what I discovered is that worries about money and finances
are at the top of the list
for most of us,
the top of the list for what causes worry and stress.

Other things made the worry list, too of course--
worries about health, about relationships, about our lives having meaning--
but worries about paying bills
and having enough money for retirement and meeting budgets
and managing our assets--
top of the list for most.

Earthly things.
Our concern with earthly things starts very early in life.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was,
but I know that I received an allowance
from the time I was a very, very young child.

Certain responsibilities came with this allowance--
at various times I was in charge of setting the dinner table
or drying the silverware after my older sister washed dishes.
Sometimes I was in charge of dusting the living room--
my dusting skills have not increased proportionately with my age.

For accomplishing these tasks
(or at least attempting to accomplish them)
I received ten cents each week.
Later my allowance increased
but ten cents is where I remember beginning.
One dime.

Except I was never given a dime.
I was always given one nickel
and five pennies.

I got paid on Saturday evening
and on Sunday morning
(and yes, we did go to church every Sunday)
the expectation was very clear--
I would tithe a portion of my allowance.
One penny--10% of one dime--went into the collection plate--
as it was passed down the row.

I never questioned this. 
My mother had explained that this is what we do
as people of God.
We give away part of what has been given to us.

You may not be familiar with tithing.
It’s not an invention of the Baptists.
it is actually biblical.
The word tithe is a variation of the word tenth,
so tithing means that you give 10% to God, to the church.

Now I think I have told you before
that a special treat for my brother, sister and I
was that sometimes we got to go and spend the weekend
with our grandparents.
We got to go separately.
We got to be an only child for the weekend.

One of those weekends when I was with my grandparents,
just like clockwork,
my grandfather gave me my allowance.
Saturday night. Ten cents.
He gave me a dime.

I put the dime in my purse.
I don’t remember how old I was,
but I clearly remember that purse.
It was shaped like the head of a panda bear
and was black and white patent leather.
Being that it was patent leather and I lived in the south,
that means it was summer time when this story happened

The next morning we got up and went to church.
I was quite dressed up and I had that little purse with me
and was so happy to be sitting next to my grandmother.
Now church was church
and we prayed and sang and stood up and sat down
and then it was time for the offering to be collected.

The ushers began to pass the collection plates--
we Episcopalians call them ALMS BASINS.
And then-- it suddenly hit me.
I did not have my usual one nickel and five pennies.
I had one dime.

And as I have said,
I don’t know how old I was
but I do remember one thing:
I remember thinking there was NO WAY
I was putting that entire dime in the collection plate.

I loved Jesus
but Jesus wasn’t getting my dime.

By the time the collection plate started down our row,
I had a death grip on the handle of that little patent-leather panda purse.
My grandmother took that shiny brass plate, put in her own giving envelope
and held the plate towards me.

I looked straight ahead.

She nudged the plate towards me and I looked the other way.
When I glanced back up at her,
she was looking right at me.

Not saying a word
but let me tell you,
those eyes--that look--said it all.
She held the plate directly in front of me
and I realized that she wasn’t budging--
that plate was going to rest right under my nose
for all eight verses of that hymn and beyond.
Blessed assurance
that plate wasn’t moving.

Finally, I unsnapped my purse,
pulled out the dime and dropped it into the plate.
My grandmother nodded and smiled and returned the plate
into the hands of the waiting usher.

I don’t think I cried,
but I wanted to.
I didn’t have bills to pay but I knew that by giving up my whole allowance,
I wasn’t going to be making an afternoon trip
to Mr. Joseph’s corner candy store.
Or buying a new comic book at Pope’s Dime Store.
I was broke!

The ride home from church was quiet.
We got home and soon lunch was on the table.
When I went to sit down,
there was a shiny dime right beside my plate.

I looked at my grandmother who looked at my grandfather.
He said,
“Generosity always comes back to us.”
That was all that was said
and soon our mouths were filled with fried chicken and green beans
and boiled potatoes.
But I have never forgotten that day.
Generosity always comes back to us.

Paul writes to the Phillippians, your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

I think that is what my grandparents did
and my parents
and now I try,
I TRY, to do that.

Even though my grandmother forced my hand a bit that day,
to get me to part with my dime,
she never intended that giving be painful.
She truly believed that giving to God was a joyful act
something we did in thanksgiving.

Because you see,
even if we tithe,
it means we keep 90 cents on the dollar.
We give 10 cents on the dollar for God’s work in the world.

Oh I know.
We don’t get to keep the full 90 cents.
Part of that dollar goes to taxes and to utility bills and all such as that.
But somehow giving 10 cents of every dollar I am blessed with
seems like a great and generous bargain.

Every person has to make their own decision,.
What you will give.
If you will give.
It is a very personal decision
but I believe it is a decision that we don’t make by ourselves.
It is a decision to be made
between each of us and God.

It is a conversation with God I encourage each one of us to have--
about earthly things and heavenly things.

There is no doubt in my mind how much you love St. Paul’s.
It shows in a myriad of ways.
How you give your time,
how you share your immense and diverse talents.
The love you show one another.
But we fool ourselves
if we think that we are not called to share our wealth.

Wealth does not mean we are Bill Gates rich.
Wealth means we have been blessed with enough.
The question is: What is enough?

We hear the Hebrew people complaining in the wilderness.
They wanted to go back to Egypt--
back to slavery and Pharaoh!
They want to have their “fleshpots”--that’s not a pornographic desire--
a flesh pot in that time period just meant a great big cooking pot--
they want more bread and meat than they can really consume.
Imagine that.
They are willing to return to being slaves
so that they can have MORE.
Enough is not enough for them.
What is enough for you?
For me?
Can we be happy with enough rather than more?

Today we begin our Annual Giving Campaign.
What we pledge to give over the next year,
in 2015, will enable us as the Cathedral Church of St. Paul to live more fully
into being a house of worship and prayer
and community.

What we give will provide music and preaching and pastoral care
and programs for all ages.
What we give will reach out into the community and around the world.
What we give will pay electricity bills and salaries and keep the walls standing.

What we give is completely up to each one of us.
I hope we each take the time to prayerfully consider our gift,
to be honest about all we have, all we have been given,
to pray about what is enough for us
and what might we joyfully give away?

Grant us not to be anxious about earthly things.
Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Generosity always comes back to us.

+     +     +

Sermon for Year A Proper 20
September 21, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Let Love Loose

If we look up the definition of the word conflict,
as used as a noun, we find this:

+ a fight, battle, or struggle
+ controversy; quarrel
+ discord of action or feeling;
+ antagonism or opposition
+ a striking together; collision.
+ incompatibility or interference

The truth is most of us do not have to look up the definition of conflict.
We know what it is.
We have felt it in our gut on more than one occasion
and we don’t like it.

Google the word conflict and you find over 87 million entries.
Type the word “conflict” into the Amazon search box
and it immediately shifts to “conflict resolution”
and offers 57,000 possible books to read.

I am not sure if Amazon includes the gospel of Matthew
as one of those books,
but, indeed, this is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel reading:
conflict resolution.
More specifically, how to resolve conflicts in the church.

His shared wisdom is not long or complicated.
If there’s a conflict, go directly to the person and talk with them about it.
Just the two of you.
Don’t tell your best friend, don’t call your momma,
don’t post obtuse comments on Facebook,
don’t just sit and stew about it.
Go and talk directly with the person.
Sometimes that is all it takes.

But if that doesn’t seem to work, Jesus says,
take one or two others with you and have another conversation
with the person.
Not a harsh, accusatory conversation
but take others with you who might be able to listen in different ways,
to communicate more clearly than you have communicated.
In other words,
Jesus is saying, don’t just give up
that you can be reconciled.

But if that doesn’t work,
bring the matter before the whole church.
Is there any way we can find away to be reconciled?

But if that doesn’t work,
you may just have to accept
that the person does not really want to be part of the community.
Sometimes people choose to remain on the outside.
It’s not what we hope or dream
but sometimes it happens.
Sometimes we have to walk away.

Jesus can be a realist when he needs to be.

Jesus knows that being a community of faith
takes work.
Being a church is not about our own individual journeys,
it’s about journeying together.

It’s about climbing out of our own little kayak
and joining the crew of a much larger sailing ship.
A ship that can carry us to deeper and more meaningful waters.
But it takes learning to work together.
We can only go so far with our own little paddles;
traveling together is a far richer journey.

Jesus knows that being a church,
a community of faith, is difficult.
We human beings like to do things our way.
But the message here is quite clear
that we need to work to love one another
and when that love seems to develop some cracks
we need to be intentional about reconciliation.

We need to not allow
our differences or our disagreements to bind us.
We need to let love free us, to loose us.
Always remembering that God is with us.

This scripture is not about giving us permission or a procedure
to judge other people.

The Church is not called to be a place of judgment.
Jesus is trying to teach us that the church needs to be a place
of love and healing and reconcilation.
The church should be a positive model
of how we can live and work and be together
in community.
And celebrate this!

There are, indeed, some who interpret this passage from Matthew’s gospel  very literally
as a way to include or exclude,
to shame or to shun,
to turn their backs on those whom they perceive
as outside the boundaries and laws of the church,
as unacceptable to God.

We must always remember
that no one,
no one,
is unacceptable to God.

Some of you know that I have a bumper sticker on my car
that reads:
God loves everyone. No exceptions.

I am not really a bumper sticker sort of person,
but  I believe what this bumper sticker says.
I also know that it is not easy.
It might be easy for God to love everyone,
but it is not easy for me.
But it’s how I want to be, how I want to live,
how I want to love.
With no exceptions.
And I need the Church-you--
to keep helping me along this journey.
And I will try to keep inspiring and helping you.

One day I had a meeting at another church
and I had parked in their parking lot (not sure if that was allowed or not),
gone in, had the meeting and was leaving,
heading across the parking lot to my car.

About the time I approached my car
this very large, burly man shouted out to me,
“Is that your car?

I turned and said, “Yes. It is.”
I thought I was about to get a stern talking to
about parking where I should not have parked.

The man walked toward me
and said,
“I have a problem with you.”

Okay, I thought, breathe, breathe, smile.
“You do? Why is that?”

“I have a problem with your bumper sticker.”

Breathe. Breathe. Smile.

“Why is that? “ I asked.

“Do you believe that? Do you really believe that God loves everyone??”

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go.

“Actually, I do believe that.”

“Well, I don’t!” said the man, now standing right in front of me.

“Oh. Why not?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t for a minute believe that God loves the N.Y. Yankees!!”
and he burst out laughing.

After a little chat about both of us being loyal Red Sox fans,
he was still laughing and he waved me good bye.

God loves everyone.
Yes, the NY Yankees included.

God’s deepest desire is that we find a way to love one another, too.
To work things out.
To resolve our conflicts.
To come together.
To always give one another a chance to start over.

Yes, there are rules.
Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t covet.
The Ten Commandments aren’t suggestions--
they are commandments.
Do this. Live this way.
We can’t just always do what we want,
act with disregard or disdain for others.
It doesn’t work.
It hurts people and ultimately it hurts us.

Live honorably. Stop quarreling.
Put aside your jealousy.

All those things destroy community.
They destroy churches too.
We are so blessed here at St. Paul’s.
This is a loving, caring, welcoming church--
and my prayer is that it will always be so
and will only become more and more and more so.

There is a song that was popular a few years back,
one of those semi-irritating songs that becomes an earworm,
that had a refrain,
“Who let the dogs out?
Who? Who? Who? Who?
Who let the dogs out?”

God calls us to sing a different song.

Who let the love out?
Who? Who? Who? Who?
Who let the love out?

Jesus calls us to loose love.
Not to LOSE love.
But to LOOSE love.

To let love run rampant.
To let the love out.
Every chance we get.
To let love out
and leave the gate wide open.

+     +     +

Sermon for Year A Proper 18
September 7, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, VT
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Monday, August 25, 2014

Holy Encounters

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Holy Encounters

In Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh, 
Hoff tells a story about the Japanese Emperor Hirohito:

The emperor was a very, very busy man.
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
he lived with a very tightly controlled schedule
of meetings, speeches, audiences, 
and other important responsibilities.

One day,
one very busy day,
there was a gigantic foul up in the scheduling.

The emperor was driven to a large meeting hall
where he was to speak to a large group of important people.
Only when he entered the meeting hall,
it was completely empty.

The emperor walked into the middle of the large room;
he stood there in complete silence.
His attending staff
waited for his angry explosion
about how his time had been wasted.

But the emperor stood there,
in the middle of that enormous empty room
and then he bowed.
He bowed to the empty space.

Then, with a great big smile on his face,
he turned to one of his assistants and said,

“We must schedule more appointments like this. 

I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in a long time.”

I think this is what Jesus would say 
about his encounter with the Canaanite woman

I need more of these encounters.

More encounters with those who interrupt me,
question me.
More encounters with those who do not give up.
More encounters with those whose faith 
makes my own faith look very small.

Too often we want our life to be without conflict, easy, pretty, 
neatly scheduled and arranged.

But life is more often messy, filled with conflicts 
and challenges and change.
We often encounter words and actions,
shoved against us,
sometimes to intentionally hurt us, 
to put us in our place,
to flatten us to the ground,
like a kicked dog 
made to creep along on its belly searching for crumbs.

This is the story here.
It’s a shocking story
because we don’t expect this type of behavior from Jesus.

After all, he’s Jesus!
He’s Mister-love-one-another-no-exceptions-Jesus!

So then what about his encounter
with this Canaanite woman?

The woman appears with a very straightforward request--
Have daughter is tormented by a demon.

She is a mother at the end of her rope
and she will go anywhere and ask anyone 
if there is even a glimmer of hope 
that someone might heal her daughter.

The woman appears and she appears shouting--
she wants his attention.
Have mercy...

And what does Jesus do?
...he does not answer her at all.

He ignores her.
All he gives her is silence.
Jesus wants her to disappear, go away.
She is not even worth one word to him.

The disciples don’t like this woman either.
She is noisy, she is interruptive, she is a woman.
There is another issue, too:
This woman is from Canaan.
She is a Gentile, not a Jew--
and the Canaanites and the Jews had been in conflict
for generations
and generations
and generations.
Generations of hate and fear.

This loud and shouting and pleading woman
might as well be wearing a name tag 
that says in capital letters:
She knows exactly who she is 
and she does not care about age-old conflict.
She cares about her child.

The disciples are irritated by this woman
but they also probably feel like they need to protect Jesus.
They want to shuttle him to safety,
away from the potential of danger and harm
from one of “those” people.

When people of different ethnic groups or religious groups
or political groups 
or groups of different social and economic status
encounter one another,
it can often be explosive. Literally.

Things haven’t changed a lot
even almost twenty centuries later.

Jesus first tries to shame the Canaanite woman with his silence,
but she does not give up.

She comes even closer
and kneels before him and pleads,
Lord, help me.

Jesus is rude to this woman.
He is bold to say that she is not one his peeps.
He has been sent for the lost sheep of Israel--
Jews only, thank you!
And you, woman, you are no Jew.
You are no better than a dog.

But this mother does not miss a beat,
She says,
Then give me the crumbs!
Give me the crumbs you would throw to a dog--
because those crumbs may be enough to help my daughter.

Complete humility.
How seldom we see that.
How seldom we act that way ourselves.

And Jesus knows he is wrong.
Jesus realizes that his ministry is so much larger
so much more expansive and inclusive
than he ever imagined.

The overwhelming love this woman has for her daughter
is absolutely parallel to the overwhelming love God has for each of us,
God’s children.
Even Jesus needed to be reminded.

We need these difficult encounters to help us grow
This is what happens in this story
Jesus grows

His heart grows larger
His mercy grows wider.
His compassion grows deeper.
He is changed

Friends, if Jesus can change and grow
who are we to think that we can’t and won’t?
Who are we to believe that others cannot change and grow
and have their hearts transformed, too?

Change is what we are about. 
We so often fight change.
When we encounter someone who is asking us to change,
change the way we see the world, 
change the way we have always done things,
change the way we treat other people,
we go silent or snippy or rude or resistant.

Instead we should be grateful.
We should be throwing our arms wide open 
and saying, “Bring it on!”

The Emperor Hirohito could have been insulted that no one showed up to hear him speak
He could have been angry with his meeting scheduler
He could have been embarrassed.

Instead, he was grateful
Gratitude is one of the best positions for growth, for change.

This story teaches us that the change must first occur in us.
In our hearts, in our lives,
in the way we speak to and about our “enemies”
the way we treat those who disagree with us or frighten us
or move at a pace that does not match our own.

The Canaanite woman essentially appears before Jesus
and says, 
“Don’t shoot. Have mercy.”

And there is a pause. 
There are a few more words--one sided words--
of harsh encounter,
but then Jesus puts down his weapon.

Jesus puts down his weapon
because he sees before him not an enemy,
not a Canaanite,
not a threat, not a dog.

He sees before him a human being.
A mother who loves her child so much, 
she will do whatever it takes in hope of her daughter being made well.

Perhaps Jesus looks into the eyes of this Canaanite woman
and realizes,
Oh my. Oh my God! 
These eyes look just like the eyes
of my own mother. 

Jesus is changed.
Jesus is transformed.
His whole ministry takes a different turn from this point forward.

Encounters with those we have appointed--
or others have appointed--
as our enemies,
these encounters challenge us--
but they also can change us.

That change can be for destruction
or that change can be for good.

Jesus answers the Canaanite woman and he says:

"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." 
And her daughter was healed instantly.

These are the miracles that happen
when we put down our weapons
and trust in the wideness of God’s mercy.

+   +   +
The story about Emperor Hirohitos is adapted from Karla M. Kincannon’s CREATIVITY AND DIVINE SURPRISE: FINDING THE PLACE OF YOUR RESURRECTION. Upper Room Books, 2005, page 87.

Sermon for Year A Proper 15
August 17, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan